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Richard Dawkins: Foreword to The Theory of Evolution by John Maynard Smith. New edition of original Penguin by Cambridge University Press.


This book, in its original shorter edition, was my first introduction to John Maynard Smith and one of my first introductions to evolution. I bought it as a schoolboy, instantly captivated by the jacket blurb and author’s photograph. The wild, nutty-professor hair, aslant like the pipe in the cheerfully smiling mouth; even the obviously intelligent eyes seemed somehow askew as they laughed their way through thick, round glasses (this was before John Lennon made them fashionable) badly in need of a clean. The picture perfectly complemented the quirky biographical note: ‘Deciding that aeroplanes were noisy and old-fashioned, he entered University College, London, to study zoology.’ I kept peeping at the back cover as I read, then returned to the text with a smile and renewed confidence that this was a man whose views I wanted to hear. I have known him personally now for 26 years and my initial impression has only deepened. This is a man whose views I want to hear, and so says everyone who knows him or reads his books, or even casually encounters him. At a conference for example.

Readers of ‘campus novels’ know that a conference is where you can catch academics at their worst. The conference bar, in particular, is the academy in microcosm. Professors huddle together in exclusive, conspiratorial corners, talking not about science or scholarship but about ‘tenure-track hiring’ (their word for jobs) and ‘funding’ (their word for money). If they do talk shop, too often it will be to make an impression rather than to enlighten. John Maynard Smith is a splendid, triumphant, lovable exception. He values creative ideas above money, plain language above jargon. He is always the centre of a lively, laughing crowd of students and young research workers of both sexes. Never mind the lectures or the ‘workshops’; be blowed to the motor coach excursions to local beauty spots; forget your fancy visual aids and radio microphones; the only thing that really matters at a conference is that John Maynard Smith must be in residence and there must be a spacious, convivial bar. If he can’t manage the dates you have in mind, you must just reschedule the conference. He doesn’t have to give a formal talk (although he is a riveting speaker) and he doesn’t have to chair a formal session (although he is a wise, sympathetic and witty chairman). He has only to turn up and your conference will succeed. He will charm and amuse the young research workers, listen to their stories, inspire them, rekindle enthusiasms that might be flagging, and send them back to their laboratories or their muddy fields, enlivened and invigorated, eager to try out the new ideas he has generously shared with them.

Not just ideas but knowledge, too. He sometimes quaintly poses as a workaday engineer who doesn’t know anything about animals and plants. He was originally trained as an engineer, and the mathematical outlook and skills of his old vocation invigorate his present one. But he has been a professional biologist for a good forty years and a naturalist since childhood. He is leagues away from that familiar menace: the brash physical scientist who thinks he can wade in and clean up biology because, no matter how poorly he shows up against his fellow physicists, he at least knows more mathematics than the average biologist. John does know more mathematics, more physics and more engineering than the average biologist. But he also knows more biology than the average biologist. And he is incomparably more gifted in the arts of clear thinking and communicating than most physicists or biologists or anybody else. More, like a finely tuned antenna, he has the rare gift of biological intuition. Walk through wild country with him as I am privileged to have done, and you learn not just facts about natural history but the right way to ask questions about those facts. Better still, unlike some theorists, he has deep respect for good naturalists and experimentalists, even if they lack his own theoretical clout. He and I were once being shown around the Panama jungle by a young man, one of the staff of the Smithsonian tropical research station, and John whispered to me: “What a privilege to listen to a man who really loves his animals.” I agreed, though the young man in this case was a forester and his ‘animals’ were various species of palm tree.

He is generous and tolerant of the young and aspiring, but a merciless adversary when he detects a dominating, powerful academic figure in pomposity or imposture. I have seen him turn red with anger when confronted with a piece of rhetorical duplicity from a senior scientist before a young audience. If you ask him to name his own greatest virtue I suspect that, though he would be modest about nearly all his many skills and accomplishments, he would make one claim for himself: that he cares passionately about the truth. He is one of the few opponents who is seriously feared by creationist debaters. The slickest of these, like glib lawyers paid to advocate a poor case, are accustomed to bamboozling innocent audiences. They are eager to take on respectable scientists in debate, partly because they gain kudos and credibility from sharing a platform, on apparently equal terms, with a legitimate scholar. But they fear John Maynard Smith because, though he doesn’t enjoy it, he always trounces them. Only a few weeks ago an anti-evolutionist author, basking in the short-term publicity that grows out of publishers’ buying journalists lunch, was booked to have a debate in Oxford. Press and television interest had been easily whipped up, and the author’s publishers must have been rubbing their hands with glee. Then the unfortunate fellow discovered who his opponent was to be: John Maynard Smith! He instantly backed out, and his supporters could do nothing to change his mind. If the debate had taken place John would indeed have routed him. But he’d have done it without rancour, and afterwards he’d have bought the wretched man a drink and even got him laughing.

I suppose some successful scientists make their careers by hammering away at one experimental technique that they are good at, and by gathering a gang of co-workers to do the donkey work. Their continued success rests primarily on their ability to coax a steady supply of money out of the government. John Maynard Smith, by contrast, makes his way almost entirely by original thought, needing to spend very little money, and there is scarcely a branch of evolutionary or population genetic theory that has not been illuminated by his vivid and versatile inventiveness. He is one of that rare company of scientists that changes the way people think. Together with only a handful of others including W.D.Hamilton and G.C.Williams, Maynard Smith is one of today’s leading Darwinians. Perennially versatile, he has also made important contributions to the theory of biomechanics, of ecology, and of animal behaviour, in which he was largely responsible for promoting the persistently fashionable methods of Games Theory. He is in the forefront of the study of sex, probably the most baffling topic in modern evolutionary theory. Indeed he was largely responsible for recognising that sex constituted a problem in the first place, the problem now universally known by his phrase, ‘the twofold cost of sex.’

He is an infectiously felicitous phrasemaker. His coinings have become a prevailing shorthand among the cognoscenti – ‘Genetic Hitch-hiking’, ‘the Sir Philip Sidney Game’, ‘Partridge’s Fallacy’, the ‘Haystack Model’, ‘chaps’ as an abbreviation for Homo sapiens – you could fill a small dictionary with words and phrases that he introduced and which are now understood and daily used by evolutionary biologists the world over. He is also responsible for reviving and promulgating the earlier coinings of his mentor, the formidable J B S Haldane: ‘Pangloss’s Theorem’, ‘The Bellman’s Theorem’ (What I tell you three times is true) and ‘Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem’ (It’s a fact the whole world knows). In turn, new generations of biologists are inspired to create their own Maynard Smithian phrases – ‘the Beau Geste Effect’, ‘the Vicar of Bray Theory’ – to lighten and refresh the pages of normally staid and rather dull academic journals. The pompous high priests of ‘political correctness’ don’t like this kind of verbal informality. Maynard Smith, like Haldane before him, is too big a man to go along with their puritanical emasculation of language (and if my use of ‘emasculation’ gives offence to somebody, what a pity).

The qualities that make John Maynard Smith the life and soul of a good conference, the nemesis of creationists and charlatans, and the inspiration of so much youthful research, are also the qualities that make him the ideal author of a book for intelligent, critical laypeople. This book which, thanks to Cambridge University Press, he will now have to call something other than ‘My little Penguin’, never had the flavour of ephemerality. Publishers never needed to buy lunches in order to get this book noticed. Through three editions and numerous reprintings, it has simply won its own place on the shelves of students and the generally literate; a staple that has seen silly fads and frothy fancies come and go. Few people in the world are better qualified than John Maynard Smith to explain evolution to us, and no subject more than evolution deserves such a talented teacher. You can hear his clear, logical, patient tones on every page. Not least, there is a total absence of pretentious languaging-up. Like Darwin himself, Maynard Smith knows that his story is intrinsically interesting enough and important enough to need no more than clear, patient, honest exposition.

It is a measure both of the brilliance of the book and the endurance of the neo-Darwinian synthesis itself that the 1975 text can stand its ground without revision today. There have, of course, been exciting new developments in the field. It would be worrying if there had not, and they are discussed in his new Introduction. But the fundamental ideas and the great bulk of the detailed assertions of the original book remain as important and as true as ever. The new Introduction itself is an elegant essay which can be recommended in its own right as a summary of important recent developments in evolutionary theory.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the only workable explanation that has ever been proposed for the remarkable fact of our own existence, indeed the existence of all life wherever it may turn up in the universe. It is the only known explanation for the rich diversity of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria; not just the leopards, kangaroos, Komodo dragons, dragonflies, Corncrakes, Coast redwood trees, whales, bats, albatrosses, mushrooms and bacilli that share our time, but the countless others – tyrannosaurs, ichthyosaurs, pterodactyls, armour-plated fishes, trilobites and giant sea scorpions – that we know only from fossils but which, in their own aeons, filled every cranny of the land and sea. Natural selection is the only workable explanation for the beautiful and compelling illusion of ‘design’ that pervades every living body and every organ. Knowledge of evolution may not be strictly useful in everyday commerce. You can live some sort of life and die without ever hearing the name of Darwin. But if, before you die, you want to understand why you lived in the first place, Darwinism is the one subject that you must study. This book is the best general introduction to the subject now available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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